What’s the purpose of Barack Obama’s “charm offensive?” And who is the target?

In a long analysis in the New York Times on Monday, John Harwood and Dick Stevenson argue that Obama’s outreach over the past week is being undertaken with the goal of securing something along the lines of the “grand bargain” he discussed with Republicans in July 2011.

Their lede demonstrates that assumption: “President Obama will go to Capitol Hill this week to try to salvage a big deficit-reduction deal, battling not only Republican resistance but also complaints from Democrats that he mishandled his last attempt.” Obama has been driven to these efforts, they argue, because Republicans won’t raise taxes. “The president’s outreach to rank-and-file lawmakers, like the discontent of liberal Democrats, is the result of Republicans’ refusal to accept any additional tax increases to avert the automatic spending cuts that are beginning to affect the economy.” The authors go on to argue that Obama has a difficult job “finding a narrow path through the ideological and political imperatives of both parties.”

The piece includes some interesting reporting on Democratic critics of the president and his negotiation. But I think their assumption is wrong.

In my view, there’s little reason to believe that the president wants such a grand bargain—or at least that he wants it enough to jeopardize his second-term political strategy. That plan? To win back the House of Representatives for Democrats, with heavy Obama involvement, by portraying Republicans once again as extremists. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month, Obama intends “to articulate for the American electorate his own feelings — an exasperation with an opposition party that blocks even the most politically popular elements of his agenda.” Then, having secured control of Congress, the president can consolidate and build on his implementation of the progressive agenda he began in his first term and laid out in his second inaugural and most recent State of the Union Address.

A grand bargain with Republicans makes such a case impossible. The president won’t agree to any deal without additional “revenues” of some kind. If Republicans were to be a part of any such compromise, something that would overshadow his other potential policy accomplishments, it would be difficult for the president to suggest that they’re simply obstructionist ideologues.

It’s far more likely that the real target of President Obama’s “charm offensive” isn’t Republicans but the journalists who cover such matters. It’s a bank shot. By “reaching out” to Republicans, he is attempting to position himself as the “reasonable” party in Washington even if his big ask—additional revenues—is something Republicans already gave him as part of the fiscal cliff deal.

The other essential component to any prospective “grand bargain” is entitlement reform. Republicans may not agree to additional revenues even with some entitlement reform but there is no way they’ll support them without it. With most congressional Democrats reluctant to support entitlement reform, if not outright opposed to it, the only way a “grand bargain” could happen is if the president commits to it and persuades some in his party to go along.

That’s highly unlikely. The president has shown little appetite for real entitlement reform over his first four years in office, aside from a tweak to the calculation of inflation on Social Security and whispers to John Boehner during the original debt ceiling talks. And, interestingly, the Times piece itself gives little reason to hope that things have changed. The White House opposes raising the eligibility age for Medicare and reducing federal funding for Medicaid, the authors remind us—those being two reforms favored by Republicans.

But that’s not all. The Times reports that “White House aides,” in pushing back against criticism from Democrats that they didn’t get enough in the fiscal cliff deal, pointed to their unwillingness to reform entitlements as evidence of their toughness. “White House aides said the deal was a good one. Not only did they crack Republican resistance to income tax rate increases, they said, but the did it without committing to any major cuts to Medicare and Social Security beneficiaries.”

If the White House is bragging about its unwillingness to concede on entitlement reform, the one thing that could conceivably allow Republicans to be part of a “grand bargain,” how likely is it that the president is serious about getting a deal?

The answer—as I wrote here over the weekend and as the Wall Street Journal argued yesterday—not very.

UPDATE: A White House aide tells a reporter, “This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours. ... I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.”

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